This Utah school district is committing to a virtual future beyond the pandemic

Jordan School District will launch three virtual schools in the fall to continue online learning.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A students does her online school work at the Jordan School District Auxiliary Services Building in Riverton, on Monday, March 8, 2021.

Even when the pandemic is over, 16-year-old Ava Gibson doesn’t want to go back to the classroom.

After the past year of learning entirely online, the junior at Bingham High has found her rhythm logging on for language arts and Zooming through U.S. history. She turns in assignments with the click of a button on her laptop, picks whatever subject she wants to do first and is done for the day when she chooses. And — her favorite part — she no longer has to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the bus.

Gibson said with virtual school she can move at her own pace. She doesn’t want to give that up next year.

“I just like it a lot more,” she said. “I’m a fast learner, so I can get up and get it done and then have the rest of my day to do what I want. It’s not so rigid as before.”

And, she added with a smile, “My grades have definitely improved.”

Students across the state and the nation were pushed into virtual learning last spring when schools first shut down due to COVID-19. And online learning has been devastating for many in Utah; the number of middle and high school students in the Salt Lake City School District who failed one class — or all first-quarter classes — skyrocketed this fall. And student scores for elementary students dropped across all grade levels and for every core subject in Salt Lake City, the only district to begin the school year with all students online. Other districts saw similar increases in failing students, especially among those who opted to attend virtually, analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune has shown.

Yet some kids, like Gibson, have thrived under the virtual shift.

[Read more: Five things COVID-19 has changed about education in Utah]

Now, one Utah school district is embracing that. Jordan District at the southwest end of Salt Lake County is committing to continue offering all online classes for interested students this fall, regardless of whether the pandemic has waned by then, as expected, thanks to the availability of vaccines. It’s opening three new, totally virtual schools: one elementary, one middle school and one high school, something that hasn’t been done in the state on this scale before.

The district strongly believes the future of education is digital, said Ross Menlove, who’s been an administrator there for years.

“It’d be a mistake to overlook that this online model has had huge benefits for many,” he noted. “Honestly, this is where instruction is heading. The way people learn is changing, and we need to adapt to that.”

Menlove said the blueprints were in the works beforehand, but the pandemic sped up the process, introducing more students to online learning than might have tried it otherwise and drawing more interest in enrolling.

The new schools, which will have their own teachers who instruct only online, will “open” in August (there is no physical building associated with them). Students K-8 will be able to sign up to do their schooling all virtually. And those in high school will have the option to do everything online or just some of their classes, if they choose.

Gibson said she’s excited to enroll at the new Kings Peak Virtual High School and keep doing everything from her computer in her family room at home.

“At school, I’d always finish my assignments early and just be sitting there in the classroom with nothing to do,” she said. “I hated it. But I’m in charge of my education now with online school.”

Making education ‘more personalized’

More students shifting their studies online has the potential to be one biggest, lasting impacts of the pandemic on education.

Prior to COVID-19, only a few districts in Utah, such as Granite and Canyons, offered online options. Enrollment in those has increased modestly in recent years, though the programs are typically only for select classes or reserved for high schoolers. And they usually aren’t promoted.

Jordan School District had a virtual high school option through Utah Students Connect, which serves kids in several districts. Fewer than 1,000 of the nearly 20,000 high schoolers in Jordan participated, though. There are about 56,000 students total in the district.

“It’s been a good option; it just hasn’t always been the most popular,” acknowledged Ammon Wiemers, who will be principal at the new virtual high school this fall. “Students didn’t know about it or didn’t want to risk trying it.”

Wiemers said the district could have returned to that status quo. But he saw the interest in online education soar with the pandemic in Jordan. And the idea behind launching the virtual schools, he said, is the belief that it will continue now that more students have experienced what it’s like.

Even when most schools in Utah and the district reopened for in-person instruction this fall, many kids still elected to stay online — roughly 6,000 in Jordan, or 10%. In fact, there were so many students opting for remote classes that the district had to ask more teachers to instruct that way than had originally signed up to do so.

Wiemers said he expects some of those students to go back to the classroom this fall after the biggest risk with the pandemic has passed. But others have found that online school just works better for them, giving them more freedom and flexibility. And that’s who the district aims to serve with its new program.

It anticipates anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 kids will sign up in the inaugural year. And, with Utah’s open enrollment policies, students from anywhere could choose to attend, regardless of district boundaries; the state funding allocated per pupil will follow them.

“This is about changing the way we deliver education, making it more personalized, letting each student do what works for them,” added Menlove, who will lead the new elementary, Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School.

It will be the first time that the district or any in Utah, outside of all-online charter schools, has offered entirely virtual classes for those K-6. Those youngest students, along with the high school and the new Kelsey Peak Virtual Middle School will be part of what district is calling the Jordan Virtual Learning Academy.

Within that, each will have its own school colors and mascot to create a community. And there will be 27 teachers hired and specifically trained to run the programs. The idea is that each school has its own identity and staff — just like any other — even as they’re online.

Menlove stressed that it won’t be like pandemic teaching, when many educators rushed to put materials online. He sees it as “definitively post-pandemic,” a move to better education long term for the students who like it. And he believes other districts will soon follow.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kasey Chambers, a fifth grade teacher at Butterfield Canyon Elementary School teaches her class online, Mar. 10, 2021. Chambers has been teaching all online this year and will be next year, too, when the Jordan School District moves to a new all virtual elementary school in the fall.

Improvement for students and teachers

Virtual instruction can benefit all types of students, said teacher Kasey Chambers, who’s been instructing her fifth grade class online this year in Jordan and has signed on to work at Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School in the fall.

Students with anxiety, she said, tend to feel more comfortable learning from home, where she says some sit with a blanket or stuffed animal. If a student has been bullied, she added, online school might offer a respite, too. One of her students has gained back a lot of confidence by doing his instruction remotely, she said.

“He is just really thriving now,” Chambers noted.

Some kids also perform better if they can sleep in or are more alert at night time. With Jordan’s virtual programs, they have to option to do their work live via Zoom or catch up later, watching the recorded lesson when it works best for them.

And those who are faster learners can jump forward in their lessons while those who may need more time on a subject can progress at their own pace. It’s individualized and puts students in the drivers’ seat, Chamber said (with their parents on the passenger side).

“[Our] main goal is to give every kid a chance at learning and success and to fit in,” she added, “and this is a really great way to reach those kids who need something different.”

Ethan Ashby, 11, is a student in Chambers’ class and has ADHD, said his mom, Leslie. The family had originally opted to do school remotely this year to “do our part” by staying home and helping limit spread of the virus. But it’s gone so well, Leslie Ashby said, that she’s signing her son up for the district’s new virtual elementary next year. She’s thrilled that it will continue to be an option.

Usually, she said, when Ethan is inside a classroom with 30 other students, it’s hard for him to focus. If he has a question, he has to wait for an answer while the teacher helps others. By the time she might get to him, he forgets or it’s hard for him to get his thoughts together or he’s given up out of frustration.

“It was this bad cycle,” Ashby said. “He’d just be done.”

Online, though, if he has a question, Ethan types it in a chat to Chambers and she usually answers within seconds. Or his mom, who’s at home during the day, can step in.

Now, Ethan starts school at about 8:30 a.m. and is usually done by lunch time. He moves through the material faster than he ever has before, not stopping with distractions he’d face in the classroom. His grades are much better. And in subjects where he used to struggle, like math, he’s excelling.

When he’s done with his work, Ethan picks up a book — he’s halfway through the Harry Potter series and he loved “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank — so he can keep going on his own.

“Online schooling works amazingly well for him,” Ashby added. “It’s just been a really great experience. I never thought I’d see him find joy in school.”

Isabella Hilling, an eighth grader, has severe asthma and her parents enrolled her online to keep her from getting sick. But Stacy Hilling, her mom, said she’s also done much better with class than before.

“It was amazing,” Hilling said. “It was like a light bulb.”

Isabella — who now considers her classmates to be her two dogs, Bailey and Buster, and the family cat, Potter — said she likes getting her work done so she can spend more time doing what she wants when she’s done. That means exploring cybersecurity so she can someday get a job with the FBI; she believes online school is even preparing her better for that, too.

Chambers said she’s seen similar improvements in many of her students and for as many reasons as there are kids. She suggests it’s because of the flexibility that online school offers. Students can adapt the coursework and the schedule to their needs.

Though she admits she was also hesitant at first, after the rocky experience last spring, she loves teaching online now and feels she can better assist her students. She’s adapted her curriculum to work online, uploading assignments, trying out new tools and including fun videos where she can.

She particularly loves using a virtual white board program where her students can write out their steps while solving a math problem. Chambers can see all of their screens at the same time, in real-time while they work — though the kids can’t see their peers’ boards — and see who is understanding long division or who might need help with fractions.

That wasn’t something she could do before in the classroom, where she had to walk desk to desk to check in.

Chambers said she also can quickly type comments and feedback. And it’s easier and faster for students to re-do their work and re-submit, if needed.

Some hurdles

Teachers and administrators in Jordan District know there will still be kinks to work out.

Ami Anderson, who’s been teaching third grade remotely this year and will also be at the virtual elementary next year, ran into an issue this month when she was trying to instruct her students how to measure objects and only a few of them actually had rulers at home. The same thing happened again, when she was teaching how to tell time and no one had an analog clock — only digital. She read through a story problem about a girl working out at the gym and asked students to calculate what time the girl left by moving the hands around. On Zoom, 22 blank faces started back at her.

“It literally stopped me in my tracks,” Anderson said with a laugh. “I just hadn’t even thought about that being a problem.”

She later found both a clock and a ruler that functioned online. Those pioneering the new virtual schools say that’s part of the process — coming up with creative solutions, learning from how things have gone this year and in the spring and preparing to keep improving. Online is just another platform for instruction, they say; what matters is that the instruction is quality.

“It’s a whole new thing,” Anderson said. “We’ve fallen on our face a few times. We just get back up.”

Next year, she said, the schools will be providing welcome packs for students, including any technology, such as a laptop or hotspot, that a kid would need to participate so no students are blocked from going to school online because they don’t have the means. And Anderson already plans to make sure a ruler and a clock are part of that.

Anderson also believes, like Chambers, that there are some things that work better online. She’s taken her kids on several virtual field trips, for instance. They went up in space with astronauts to see how slime worked without gravity. In another, they visited pandas at a zoo. Chambers said she drove up to the Utah Capitol and streamed walking through the building. And she brings guests on camera, such as police officers, for discussions with her class.

Wiemers agreed that online has opened a lot of possibilities and could “overcome the limitations of the traditional setting.” He was previously an English teacher and one perk, he said, is that learning online allows students to spend as much time on a subject as they need. If a students gets in a flow writing an essay, for instance, they can keep going instead of a bell ringing that tells them to move on.

He said a few have questioned whether some kids are too young for online instruction to be successful — such as those learning to read — but he said the district hasn’t found that to be the case. And those who worry can, of course, continue in person. “These kindergarteners have better technology skills than I do,” added Anderson.

Others also worry about students not logging on or completing their work, but that would have the same consequences as truancy or missing assignments in the traditional classroom.

The district also notes that many of the same things offered there will also be available with the virtual schools. High school students can still sign up for Advanced Placement and honors classes; there will also still be standardized testing.

Kids who want to participate in sports can still do so at the neighborhood school, where they can also attend dances. They could also sign up for one or two virtual classes at the end of the day so they don’t miss any class time when they are participating in a practice or game.

Students will be able to go in-person, too, to two satellite locations: Majestic Elementary and Hidden Valley Middle. Both have some extra space, said Jordan School District spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf, and can serve as a meeting place for teachers to sit down one-on-one with a kid who might need help.

There will also be extracurriculars. One teacher wants to start a robotics club. Chambers is interested in a social studies fan group.

‘School-life balance’

Gibson, the junior at Bingham High, hasn’t stepped foot inside her school now for a year. And she might not for another year now that she’s signed up for online classes again for the fall.

At first, she said, “it felt weird. But now that I’ve been doing it for so long it just feels normal.”

She gets up at 8:30 a.m. and is typically done with her assignments by 11 a.m. — unless she decides to work ahead; in some classes, the materials are posted for a week ahead of time. The rest of the day, she said, is hers to do what she wants.

Sometimes, she goes further into the assignments she’s enjoyed, like re-reading “The Glass Menagerie.” She’s also been able to progress more with her piano lessons. Gibson said with a laugh that learning remotely has given her “school-life balance.”

And she doesn’t want to give that up — especially when the pandemic is over.